News

2021 Ned Kelly Awards shortlists announced

Here’s some good news for fans of crime writing: the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction and true crime writing have been announced.

Established in 1995, these awards are administered by the Australian Crime Writers Association (ACWA) and are named after Australia’s infamous 19th century bushranger Ned Kelly.

The awards are split into four separate categories as follows (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):

BEST CRIME FICTION

  • Consolation by Garry Disher (Text) (on my TBR!)

  • Gathering Dark by Candice Fox (Penguin Random House)

  • A Testament of Character by Sulari Gentill (Pantera Press)

  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan)

  • The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Tell Me Lies by J.P. Pomare (Hachette) (on my TBR!)

  • When She Was Good by Michael Robotham (Hachette)

  • White Throat by Sarah Thornton (Text) (on my TBR!)

BEST DEBUT CRIME FICTION

  • The Good Mother by Rae Cairns (Bandrui Publishing)

  • The Second Son by Loraine Peck (Text)

  • The Bluffs by Kyle Perry (Penguin Random House) (abandoned this one)

  • The Night Whistler by Greg Woodland (Text)

BEST TRUE CRIME

  • The Husband Poisoner by Tanya Bretherton (Hachette)

  • Stalking Claremont: Inside the hunt for a serial killer by Bret Christian (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Public Enemies by Mark Dapin (Allen and Unwin)

  • Hazelwood by Tom Doig (Penguin Random House)

  • Witness by Louise Milligan (Hachette)

BEST INTERNATIONAL CRIME FICTION

  • The Guest List by Lucy Foley (Harper Collins)

  • The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman (Allen and Unwin)

  • Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar (Text)

  • We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker (Allen and Unwin)

  • Broken by Don Winslow (Harper Collins)

The winners will be announced at an award ceremony next month.

You can find out more about the Ned Kelly awards on the ACWA website. All previous category winners are listed on this Wikipedia page.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Gabriel Bergmoser, Harper Collins, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘The Hunted’ by Gabriel Bergmoser

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 284 pages; 2020.

Terrifying. Horrifying. Disturbing. All these words spring to mind when trying to sum up Gabriel Bergmoser’s high-octane suspense novel The Hunted.

Set somewhere in the Australian outback (there are no place names in this book), it’s a scary mix of Wolf Creek meets Wake in Fright with a dash of Fear is the Rider and The Dead Heart thrown in for good measure.

I raced through it with my heart in my throat one moment and feeling like I was going to gag the next. Yes, it’s an incredibly visceral read and not always pleasant because it features some pretty gruesome scenes. You have been warned.

In the UK, the book is published by Faber & Faber

Service station standoff

The story focuses on Frank, a service station owner, who runs his business single-handedly on a little-used highway in the middle of nowhere.

His teenage granddaughter, Allie, whom he barely knows, is staying with him for a few weeks. Allie has been having problems at school, so her parents figured taking her out of her normal city environment might help “fix her attitude”. Yet the pair rarely see each other because Frank spends long hours at the servo and Allie sleeps late.

But one morning their quiet existence is shattered when a car pulls into the service station and a badly injured, blood-soaked woman falls out. She’s being pursued by a mob who seemingly want to kill her — and they’ve done a pretty good job of nearly doing that so far.

What happens next is an adrenaline-fuelled high stakes drama involving Frank, Allie and a group of customers who band together to protect the almost-dying woman from further danger, while they themselves get caught up in a terrifying standoff that occurs on Frank’s property involving crazed men, guns and explosions.

Woman on the run

To escalate the tension even further in this super-fast-paced novel, the author includes a second narrative thread, which goes back in time to tell the story of Maggie, the badly injured woman.

In chapters headed “Then”, which alternate with others headed “Now”, we learn how Maggie hooks up with a fellow backpacker on the road to experience the “real” Australia, only to land in an isolated country town where everything is not what it seems.

What Maggie discovers in that town triggers a massive road chase in which she becomes “the hunted” of the title. I can’t really reveal more than that for fear of ruining the plot, but let’s just say it’s pretty grim…

Too much violence

As much as I enjoyed the page-turning suspense of this novel (I ate it up in a day unable to tear my eyes away), I had issues with some of the violence in The Hunted, because it often felt gratuitous. On more than one occasion, I felt nauseous reading visceral descriptions of what happens to human bodies when they’re beaten or shot at.

Making one of the lead characters female doesn’t alleviate the misogyny in this book either. I felt sickened by the men in this novel and the ways in which they got off on doing horrible things to women.

Yes, I know it’s fiction and I know it’s supposed to be a thrilling horror story, but I question the author’s motivations: what is the point of the violence and the misogyny? If it was written in the 1970s or 1980s it might be understandable, but this is the 21st century  — surely our attitudes have moved on and we don’t need to be titillated by this kind of content?

According to the book’s publishers, a film adaptation of The Hunted is currently being developed in a joint production between two US companies. It certainly has all those qualities that mainstream Hollywood loves: car chases, guns, explosions — and death. I don’t think I could bare to watch it…

About the author¹: Gabriel Bergmoser is an award-winning Melbourne-based author and playwright. He won the prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award in 2015, was nominated for the 2017 Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing and went on to win several awards at the 2017 VDL One Act Play Festival circuit. In 2016, his first young adult novel, Boone Shepard, was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize. (1. Source: Harper Collins Australia website.)

Where to buy: Widely available in most territories.

This is my 4th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here.

It is also my 6th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Bitter Wash Road’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 336 pages; 2013.

Bitter Wash Road (published as Hell to Pay in the US) by Garry Disher is the first in a trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”. It has been described as the “gold standard for Australian noir” — and I’d have to agree. I haven’t enjoyed a distinctively Australian crime novel as good as this for a while.

Set in South Australia’s wheatbelt, three hours north of Adelaide, the hot, dry landscape is as much a character as the city policeman “Hirsch” who has been exiled to a single-officer police station.

It shares certain traits with Jane Harper’s best-selling The Dry — which arguably put Australian crime novels on the international map in recent times — but predates it by three years and is far more accomplished, evocative and complex.

Whistleblower exiled to a small town

The story goes something like this. As a whistleblower, reporting on corrupt colleagues, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen has had his promising city career cut short. Now, exiled in Tiverton, a tiny speck of a town in the wheatbelt, he deals with low-level crime.

As if adjusting to life alone in a strange town isn’t enough, his new colleagues in the nearest big town, where his boss is based, hate and despise him, and he is constantly on alert because he knows there are certain people who would rather he just disappeared.

In the opening chapter, when he’s called out to investigate gunshots on the isolated Bitter Wash Road, Hirsch realises he’s completely exposed. If anyone is going to kill him, this is the perfect place to set up an ambush. But who could it be? The very police officers who should be providing him with back up? Or the pair of fugitive killers who had last been seen in town, heading for Longreach, more than 2,000km away, in a distinctive black Chrysler?

He’s wrong on both counts, but it sets up the mood for the rest of the novel, for Hirsch is a policeman whose integrity and honesty is challenged at almost every turn, a man who fears for his life, who worries about his city-based parents who have been threatened in the past, and struggles to fit in to a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business but tend to keep themselves to themselves.

UK edition

Complex murder mystery

Once the character of Hirsch has been established, the book gets into the nitty-gritty of a complex murder investigation in which a teenage girl is found dead, lying facedown in a ditch by the side of the road, a victim of a suspected hit-and-run.

The investigation is far from straight forward and before long Hirsch realises that there are vested interests and hidden agendas at work. As an outsider in an isolated country town, getting answers out of anyone proves increasingly difficult. What are people hiding? And does it have anything to do with his role as a police whistleblower?

Bitter Wash Road, with its multiple plot lines, focuses on a disturbing murder that highlights how no police force (or station) is immune from corruption and vested interests. It also shows how the closing of ranks against an outsider can obscure the pursuit of justice — with devastating consequences.

Intelligent crime novels don’t come much better than this — and I’m looking forward to reading the rest in the series, which comprises Peace (2019) and Consolation (2020).

Bitter Wash Road was shortlisted for Best Crime Novel at the 2014 Ned Kelly Awards and won the German Crime Prize in 2016. It is widely available in all territories.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting

‘The Survivors’ by Jane Harper

Fiction – Kindle edition; Macmillan Australia; 384 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jane Harper’s latest novel The Survivors switches focus from the Queensland outback of her previous novel to the island state of Tasmania. Here, on the windswept coast of a small local community (the fictional Evelyn Bay) a young woman in town for the summer is murdered, her body found washed up on the beach in the early hours of the morning.

The crime is a reminder of a previous tragedy in which a 14-year-old girl went missing on the night of a big storm 12 years earlier. That same night, two local men, Finn and Toby, also died when their boat overturned in stormy seas.

The timing of the murder is unfortunate because Finn’s brother Kieran is back in town. Kieran blames himself for his elder brother’s death all those years ago and the occurrence of yet another tragedy triggers painful memories for him. He’s arrived in Evelyn Bay from Sydney — with his long-term girlfriend and young baby daughter in tow — to help his mother pack up the family home so she can move her husband, who has early-onset dementia, into a nursing home in Hobart.

The Survivors is essentially a murder mystery focussed on two women who lost their lives more than a decade apart. It’s mainly centred on Kieran and his family, and a small cohort of childhood friends, now adults, who have remained living in the town. It’s a slow burner, the kind of story that unfolds slowly but surely, and is much about guilt, redemption and family loyalty, as it is about trying to solve a murder.

What I liked

The number of potential suspects
The Survivors isn’t a traditional police procedural or even a typical crime novel. It’s essentially a murder mystery that is “solved” by a small cast of characters who piece together clues discovered by the police and their own “investigation” (I use the term loosely). There are plenty of would-be culprits — the mainland genre author who has purchased the big house in town, Kieran’s father who wanders the local area at strange times of the night, the young kitchen hand who drove the victim home from work, and so on. Every one of them could, potentially, be the murderer — and the fun is trying to guess who it might be. The ending, I have to say, is satisfactory — and not the person I suspected at all.

The setting
In previous novels, Harper has faithfully captured a diversity of Australian settings, from a small rural community battling the ongoing effects of drought in The Dry to an outback cattle station that has to generate its own electricity it is so remote in The Lost Man.

In The Survivors, she captures what it is like to live in a small coastal community, some 900-strong, the kind of place that is super-busy with tourists in the summer and quiet and closed-in on itself when the season is over. It’s also the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do). She nails the gossip, innuendo and rumours that can fester when the facts aren’t truly known, and shows how this can spread like wildfire, especially via community online pages. She also nails what it is like to grow up in those places and to never truly escape them because even if you move away and only return on holiday, the locals think they “know” you and don’t think twice about casting judgement.

The dementia aspect
The depiction of dementia is handled sensitively and clearly shows the burdens placed on the primary caregiver — in this case, Kieran’s 64-year-old mother — and the family members who have to adjust to a new reality in which their loved one barely recognises them.

What I didn’t like

The dead woman trope
The Survivors is yet another crime novel where a dead woman is the central plot point. Harper doesn’t sensationalise the murder and makes reference to the fact that women must negotiate the world in a different way to men (never walking alone down dark streets, for example), but it still remains a story that relies on an old trope that I, personally, am incredibly sick of. It really is time to change the story.

The repetition
There’s a lot of repetition in this story, a lot of rehashing old ground, a lot of telling us that Kieran, for instance, has been wracked with guilt for more than a decade, and that the storm 12 years ago did more than wreck trees and buildings, it wrecked lives too. Lose half the repetition and this story would be not only leaner, but it would also be stronger, too.

The clichés
As much as Harper is great at capturing small-town life, it does seem that she only creates places solely populated by white people. While this story does feature a “half-Singaporean” (this is how Kieran describes his girlfriend), everyone else in this story is white. In fact, everyone in this novel feels like a stereotype: the guys are all sporty types, there’s a town beauty, a hard-working put-upon mother, a bumbling male police officer. Do I need to go on?

An entertaining read

No doubt you are going to see loads of reviews of this book in the coming weeks and months. And it will be nominated for awards and top the best-seller lists both here in Australia and the UK, where Harper has a good following.

But this is a fairly average crime novel. By all means, read it for the setting and the fun of guessing who committed the crime, but don’t expect to have your world set on fire. Sometimes, though, that’s enough, especially if you are just looking for a bit of temporary escapism. The Survivors is an entertaining read, no more, no less.

It will be published in the UK in hardcover next January and the USA next February. A Kindle version is already available in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2020

Aoife Clifford, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster Australia

‘Second Sight’ by Aoife Clifford

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster, 272 pages; 2020.

Second Sight, by Australian author Aoife Clifford, is a well-plotted crime thriller set in a small coastal town.

It focuses on two separate, possibly linked, crimes: the disappearance of a teenage girl more than 20 years earlier and the death of an Irish tourist punched by a local man who was once friends with the missing teen. It is structured around two intertwined narratives — one set in the present day told in the first person, the other set in the past (New Year’s Eve, 1996, to be precise) told in the third person.

In the first storyline, lawyer Eliza Carmody reluctantly returns to her home town of Kinsale, because she’s been hired to defend the electricity company blamed for a devastating bush fire that killed eight people two years earlier.

An image of a burnt-out car comes into my mind. The smoke had been so thick she’d driven it off the road and lurched into a ditch, unable to move, like a boat stuck on a reef. The fire had done the rest. The first day I started working on the case, I looked at the list of the dead, eight of them. I read their names and traced my one degree of separation from each of them — school, family friends, vaguely remembered faces from the beach or shops — and then put the paper in my filing cabinet. Sometimes the only way to cope is to separate out bits of your life and keep them in solitary confinement.

On the day Eliza returns “home” to meet an expert as part of her research for the court case, she witnesses a violent altercation in the street which results in the death of an Irish tourist working in the local pub. Because she knows the man who landed the fatal king punch, Eliza is inextricably drawn back into a past — and a community — she’s long tried to forget.

The second storyline focuses on the mystery of what happened to Eliza’s friend Grace, who disappeared, never to be seen again, on New Year’s Eve, 1996. When bones are discovered at a historic homestead near town, Eliza becomes convinced they must belong to her friend…

Typical psychological thriller

Second Sight is typical psychological thriller territory, fast-paced and well-plotted, but with a literary bent.

Clifford paints an authentic portrait of a small town still reeling from a fatal bushfire and her depiction of local characters — the publican turned prospective politician, the quiet loner thought to be the arsonist, the compassionate nurses caring for people they have known all their lives — feel believable. She really captures what it is like to grow up in these kinds of places — the drinking culture, for instance, and the school ties you can never escape.

And Eliza, with her discoloured eyes, strained relationship with her older sister, and a beloved policeman father now living out his days in a nursing home, is well drawn. She’s flawed and feisty, prone to making unwise decisions and behaving in a not particularly professional manner. (Admittedly, I didn’t like her very much.)

But I had some issues with the novel. There are a couple of ludicrous plot twists, some of the heart-hammering moments are a bit overdone, and there’s too much sex in it. (There’s a rape scene, however, which is graphic and shocking, but sensitively handled.)

Second Sight is good, escapist fiction. It brims with small-town claustrophobia, treachery and scandal, and has a genuinely surprising denouement that makes all that furious page-turning worth it in the end.

This novel, first published in Australia in 2018 and republished with a new cover this month, will be published in the UK on 27 January. It was published by Pegasus in the US last year.

This is my 1st book for #AWW2020